Monkey on a Rope
1964, Arden Creek, Nevada.
I was christened ‘Gimmick’ and raised in a firehouse. They trained me every morning and evening, in four-hour blocks, for nearly eight months, after which time I was finally deputised ‘Special Rescue-aid’. Capuchins are not always submissive to orders, but I was coached thoroughly, treated with kindness, and, above all, well-fed. The auxiliary men – Bo Mondale in particular – delighted in feeding me food-scraps, and were nearly always vying for my scratchy affection. I favoured Bo above the rest; he was an honest simpleton with thick arms and stunted speech. Rumours and jokes weren’t kind to Bo, but he was always kind to me, and I respected his innocence.
The Arden Creek Firehouse was grand, rickety, and old (a converted fort from frontier times). History related that in 1880, cornered locals held the fort as a last post, when French and Indian forces engaged the township in a dispute over fur. A wall of plaques in the foyer commemorated this occasion – ‘The Last stand at Arden Creek’ – honouring names like ‘Duanne ‘The Iron’ Stott’ and ‘Garrett ‘The Gun’ Dawes’. Inscribed beneath each name was an individual tally (denoting the respective number of kills). ‘John ‘Eyes’ Harper’ held the fore, with ‘35’ notches to his handle.
It was around noon-time, and the Sunday crew (six men, plus Bo) were fighting through a game of penuchle. They had been playing since 10:30 the previous night and were becoming rather vicious. I was asleep on top of the refrigerator, dreaming of ‘Injuns’ and fur, when a dozen bells rang at once.
We were called out into the dead grasslands of Clark County, where a young girl was trapped at the bottom of a water well. Thankfully (like everywhere else for miles around) the pit was dry. The girl, it transpired, was a defective from the nearby blind seminary. Desperate to escape her situation, the eleven-year-old had fled from her dormitory at first light, in a bid to cross the wide-open desert, sight unseen. She had made it almost three miles before stopping to investigate the well.
We surrounded the mouth of the pit: teachers, students, priests, police officers, and The Crew. Smalley – our unit’s captain – called into the depths, his baritone bouncing and ringing into blackness.
“MELISSA, CAN YOU HEAR MY VOICE?”
There came a fainting, but affirmative moan – something like a ‘yes’ – from out of the hole. Smalley turned to one of the teachers.
“How much does Melissa weigh? Is she a heavy girl?”
“No, she’s real slight. I’d say she’s barely seventy pounds.”
Training was over. This was my first real call. They buckled the harness onto my back, tethered it with a line of skinny rope, and began to lower me steadily down. The descent was smooth enough, save a few minor hitches – mainly tack chafe.
Approaching the bottom of the pit, I saw the bent shape of a girl. She was lying on her front, spine arched up, legs misplaced. Melissa was certainly stunned, and a little crooked from the fall, but nothing looked broken. I made land on her small-of-back, unclipped the rope from my harness, and began fastening it around her chest. I finished the transfer with a figure-eight knot, and tugged the line. Capuchin monkeys are not only intelligent, but are also acutely retentive. I knew, and did, all of this by rote.
Above me, the crew began hoisting, and Melissa the blind girl was gradually lifted. I remained below, watching her ascent with pride.
After three years, and over two dozen rescues, I was finally retired. My services to the noble marshals and buffs were noted with a plaque in the firehouse foyer, reading simply: ‘GIMMICK – loyal Capuchin to the Clark County heroes’ – and beside this legend sat my very own tally of ‘26’. On the night of my departure, Bo cried deeply. I had been the most present of all his friends at the firehouse, and the dissolution of our partnership rocked him badly. He pledged to leave the auxiliary and marry.
Having accumulated a great deal of training and practical skill from my engagement as Special Rescue-aid, the appointed town officials of Arden Creek decided to sell me. Tame, adolescent Capuchin are valuable (you will recognise many from your favourite films and television programmes) and I was acquired at great expense by the Double Encore Casino in Las Vegas.
Every year, the Double Encore conducts a charity auction of antiques and memorabilia. The occasion is always well attended, inviting the patronage of Nevada’s wealthiest young professionals and socialites.
So on the 1st of December, 1968 – no less than a week since my sale from Arden – I was auctioned at DE with a reserve of five-hundred dollars. They called me Lot 9. My cage was balanced on a bureau across from Al Capone’s dictionary set. After hours of endured cooing and gawking, I finally sold for an undisclosed sum. To my surprise, the buyer was an elderly concierge in Hilton regalia.
We rode a fast taxi in silence, arriving at the Hilton at around midnight and a quarter. My cage was promptly loaded onto a trolley, then shunted into the lobby’s service elevator. We tripped thirty floors at full tilt, riding express-style to the Hilton’s penultimate level. Alighting, a hurried porter ran my trolley through the thirty-first’s maze of corridors (I remember the wallpaper, a gilded arabesque which seemed to flicker past) until we arrived at The Suite.
Knock-knock. The door was intimidating – an immense portal of oak, wider and thicker than any of its brothers. For the longest time, there came no answer. Then, after a taut five-seconds, the monster flung open.
“Mr. Presley, I have your monkey.”.
The nervous porter gestured at my cage. Capuchin are friendly, so I grinned.
“Wow, would you look at that little person…” The man in the jumpsuit grinned back, exposing a mouthful of pearls – his teeth, like his threads, were blindingly white.
“So you want him inside, sir?”
His digs were spectacular. The hallway was a shimmering, circular-seal atrium, surrounded by tall doric columns, with an ornate staircase (French – of course) in its centre. The vaulted ceiling wore a chandelier (I presumed also French), and was painted in murals like the Cappella Sistina. The porter wheeled me inside before dashing out fleetly, and I sat there in my coop, observing the wondrous chamber that wrapped around me.
Elvis unlatched my cage and invited me onto his shoulder.
I scampered up, getting a clearer lie of the land.
“This is my royal suite. It’s bigger than the presidential – bigger by a stretch… come on little man–”
For the next thirty minutes I was lead on a guided tour. We visited his plate-room, the enormous lounge, conversation pit, bar, and all the annexes. Elvis, high, monologued throughout, commenting on every minutiae whilst I listened closely and attentively. The tour culminated in his function room – an oval-shaped chamber with guitars arranged on the rotunda walls. With a delicate hand, The King removed a specimen – his Gibson Super 400, if I recall – from its place, and proceeded to strap it on.
“I’ve always wanted a Capuchin for a friend, ever since Tarzan the Ape Man…” He took a seat and began to strum, humming at first, then crooning a little. I remained on his shoulder as he serenaded (a medley of carols) and when the performance was over, he coaxed me onto his knee. I obliged without question.
“Twenty six people they told me you saved… You know, I’ve had as many singles on the Billboard Hot 100?”
The singer was a charming lunk, just like Bo Mondale had been. I stared up at him, remembering my oldest, stupidest friend.
He petted my head “You know, you’re just like a Western hero – Wyatt Earp or Thomas Jefferson. I’m gonna play you some more of my music.”
I lived in the Suite for nine weeks, during which time Elvis was playing at the Monte Carlo and MGM Grand. It felt uncanny waking up at noon, and without a regiment. Three years of service had not prepared me for life in a pleasure dome.
On account of his schedule, the man of the house was largely absent. However, two chamberlains were present at all times, dusting, sorting or otherwise cleaning. I was routinely served steak (bloody, a la The King) and drawn regular baths, which I enjoyed. Music was piped in constantly – everything from Korsakov to Perry Como – and I quickly developed a fascination with radio. Until then I had only heard snatches at the firehouse, and even then the crews only ever played Christmas records. At Xanadu, my education in music saved me from boredom – I played memory games, learning by rote every lyric, label, date, and production credit.
On the occasions that he was home, Elvis was noticeably withdrawn. I supposed it was his unrelenting schedule – two shows in a day, plus appearances. We would watch television together, or I would listen to him perform acoustic, but he was oftentimes mute, distant, and unreciprocating.
I was exploring the storage wing one morning when I discovered a sheet-covered pianola. With the corners in my mouth, I was able to tug firmly and dislodge the sheet. The robot was glorious – impeccably preserved from its sixty years in storage. I stood admiring it for some time, rapt by its beauty. Then, noticing that a player-roll was already inserted and ready to go, I decided to turn it on.
It was ‘The Maple Leaf Rag’ by Scott Joplin, a song I already knew and recognised. There is something like dark-magic about automated things – especially instruments. Watching the pianola, I was struck by this. What do you call music when the composer is dead and the performer doesn’t exist?
The oldest manservant arrived en scène, just as the last bar of Joplin’s rag played. He tutted, fixing me with a look of consternation, and re-covered the player piano. I never once touched it again. At this point, my biology was changing. Grown male Capuchins become aggressive easily, and I had almost reached sexual maturity. I tried to still myself with music, but memory games were no longer enough. Without a mate I was cagey and frustrated, a liability – a lot like a cheap chemistry set.
Slowly but surely, the King began noticing these behaviours
(I was taking my steaks rarer and rarer, breaking ornaments, hissing, spitting) and decided to intervene. He sent the floor concierge on a second mission, and two days later the old-man returned with an animal crate stencilled ‘SF EXOTICS’.
“Gimmick, I want you to meet Mrs Lunch, your new wife and lover – fair warning, I hear she’s a pretty bit…”
Elvis flipped open the crate, and an ugly Capuchin lady padded out. I had never seen another one of my kind (male or female) before, but I was acquainted with mirrors – and even without comparison, I knew this primate was highly ugly. Her face, rocky and oddly squashed, looked like an accident of nature, and she was incredibly shy in her manner. To be short, there was nothing becoming about Mrs Lunch. Nevertheless, my urges were urgent, and that night we mated. Mated. Mated. Mated… Mated. Even with all my trepidation, she was clearly better than humping the futons and throw pillows, and I found myself gratified, thrilled, more than ever before. Now at this point, I’d already listened to countless love songs, but for the first time ever, I felt I could finally appreciate what those singers and their ballads were really about (and it wasn’t love at all). Because I didn’t love Mrs Lunch.
We would do this – mate – more-or-less constantly over the next few days. We mated in a variety of locations (often in the manservant’s quarters – often on his linens) and, on one occasion, in the presbytery (E.A.P had a chapel annex upstairs). I didn’t want to deconsecrate anything, but Mrs Lunch convinced me. She was incredibly anti-theistic, a self-professed philosopher of science – and she absolutely loved relating the names I didn’t know (Camus, Ahmad…). I remember once she lectured forty minutes on someone called Biernacki, so long that I had to go again (not that even wanted to – or easily could) just to make her silent (or rather, change the topic). Additionally, we never talked about pop music.
Nevertheless, my romance with Mrs Lunch was an education, and, I can say with reasonable honesty, a mostly positive venture. Our fun, however, would end on the 8th of February, 1968, when my tenure as ‘Pet Monkey to The King’ was abruptly cut short. It’s the bit of my story you won’t believe.
End of Part 1